Research Lead: Horror Films, Science Selfies, Taste Buds and Politics, Surviving Winter, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

Netflix and thrill: Prepping for a pandemic by watching horror movies 

Know someone who loves horror movies or relishes a good survivalist docuseries? Turns out their movie preferences might have made them more prepared for our current circumstances. “Fans of horror films exhibited greater resilience during the pandemic and fans of ‘prepper’ genres (alien-invasion, apocalyptic, and zombie films) exhibited both greater resilience and preparedness,” write the authors of a new study about why people engage in frightening fictional experiences. They also found “that trait morbid curiosity was associated with positive resilience and interest in pandemic films during the pandemic.” So on your next movie night, consider putting on a scary flick—it might help you practice important emotional strategies for the next time the real world starts feeling apocalyptic. [Personality and Individual Differences

When negative content is beneficial 

In contrast to those cinephiles above, I (Michaela) hate horror films and any other movie that’s going to make me feel sad, scared, or otherwise disturbed. While I hate scary/sad movies, there are plenty of other mediums where I consume negative content. But why are people curious about aversive content, like gruesome images, articles detailing the worst of human nature, or news coverage about tragedies? According to a review by scientists at the University of Amsterdam, one reason is that negative content can be beneficial: it provides opportunities for individuals to acquire knowledge, reduce uncertainty, experience emotions from a place of safety, and practice empathy by engaging with the experiences of others. [Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences]

Always the understander, never the understood 

Some people are more perceptive than others. Rather than being an individual trait, past research has shown that individuals who are low in status and power, such as people from lower socioeconomic classes, racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals, are much better at peeking behind the mental curtains of others, in contrast to those with high power and status. One explanation for why members of these groups demonstrate greater insight is that their motivation to understand others might be higher. For those with low power and status, their outcomes may be more dependent on those with more power and status than vice versa—so it behooves them to be accurate about what others think and feel. This results in “asymmetries in mutual understanding.” 

A new study suggests that this perceptual mismatch also extends to those with perceived status differences—between people with high and low self-esteem. Participants lacking in self-esteem demonstrated insightfulness into their high esteem counterparts, whereas those with high self-esteem were rather clueless at perceiving their partners’ internal state. The authors conclude that this can result in the realities of some groups being favored over others, which can have significant ripple effects in society. [Perspectives on Psychological Science; open access

Identical information, divergent neural responses for liberals and conservatives

There’s a popular narrative that liberals and conservatives exist in media bubbles and consume different information, or at the very least the same information framed in very different ways. But there’s other evidence that suggests most Americans have more centrist media diets. If this second theory is true and divergent media sources aren’t driving polarization, what is? According to one new study, it might be the biased ways our brains process information. Scientists put conservatives and liberals in an fMRI machine, pushed play on videos about immigration policy, and measured participants’ neural activity. The study’s authors found different neural responses between conservatives and liberals in a region of the brain associated with “interpretation of narrative content.” According to their findings, political attitudes bias information processing in the brain and certain language (words related to risk and those with moral-emotional weight) was more likely to drive polarized responses. In other words, liberal and conservative participants processed identical information in different ways. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; open access

Taste and politics

New research takes the potential connection between biology and politics even further, suggesting that taste sensitivity could predict political views. In a correlational study, scientists found that participants who were more sensitive to taste and to the feeling of disgust were more likely to be conservative. These sensitive tasters also had higher densities of taste buds on their tongues, a genetically determined physical characteristic. The authors suggest that this heightened reaction to taste and disgust may lead a person to avoid new experiences and therefore adopt more conservative tendencies. Obviously, there are many factors that shape political views, but this research sheds light on how taste may be one of them. [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology]

Feeling depressed? It’s (probably) not Trump’s fault 

In the days and weeks (and for some, months and years) following the 2016 election, a popular narrative arose about increases in emotional distress for those on the left-leaning side of the political spectrum. Now following the 2020 election, a similar narrative has emerged about unhappiness and emotional suffering for those disappointed with a Biden win. But does empirical evidence back that up? Using “an array of big data measures,” including self-report measures, Twitter discourse analysis, Google search behavior, Medicaid data of antidepressant consumption, and large daily surveys, scientists found that the data didn’t back up popular notions of “Trump depression” following the 2016 election. While this research hasn’t yet been replicated for the 2020 election, it seems that our personal distress may be less entangled with big political events than we think. [Journal of Experimental Psychology]  

Reasons to stop ruminating on that stressful performance

Odds are most of us can point to a time we got nervous before a presentation or stressed before a big game or performance. But stress can continue long after the event is over, perpetuated by thoughts about how you performed that go round and round. In addition to being emotionally taxing, a recent paper suggests that these post-event ruminations may actually prolong the body’s physical stress response. For two days after a performance, music students at a Swiss university were asked to report their thoughts about the performance itself, as well as collect multiple daily saliva samples to measure their physiological stress response. Music students who had more negatively valenced thoughts about their recent music performance had higher levels of salivary cortisol—a hormone important in stress regulation—than students who thought positively about their performance. After a challenging performance, instead of entering the rumination vortex, try focusing on the things you did well and that you’re proud of (e.g., “I explained that challenging concept well,” or “I played that difficult part better than I ever have”) to help keep your stress levels lower. [Frontiers in Psychology]

Scale up toolkit for researchers and practitioners 

If you’ve been a reader of ours for any length of time, you know that behavioral science interventions don’t always translate from the lab to the field or from one context to another. To help practitioners overcome this pernicious challenge, BehaviourWorks Australia at Monash University teamed up with the Victorian Government Behavioural Insights Unit. Their new toolkit, aptly named “The Scale Up Toolkit for Behaviour Change,” takes users through a series of steps to identify target behaviors and design feasible (and, of course, scalable) interventions. With additional resources like how to coordinate among multiple organizations and how to scale in policy/government contexts, this toolkit promises to be useful for anyone doing behavioral science. [The Scale Up Toolkit for Behaviour Change

Improving science communication through social media selfies and dope memes

It seems like more and more scientists and science communicators are turning toward social media to distribute scientific knowledge. I (Caitlyn) see a lot of scientists on Twitter retweeting academic papers and chatting about their latest statistical model. But is this the best way to communicate science, especially to a nonscientist audience? It turns out, yes, especially if there’s a fun picture or two. Science engagement is improved when communicators make interpersonal connections (e.g., posting selfies, talking about nonscientific content, using first person-rich captions) instead of simply lecturing about their latest experimental results. These strategies encourage a two-way conversation about science, ultimately promoting awareness and understanding. So you might want to find your favorite scientist on social media. If you’re looking for a place to start, check out our list on Twitter of all of the behavioral scientists who’ve contributed to the Behavioral Scientist over the past three years. [PlosONE]

Thrive—don’t just survive—during winter 

We all know that weather and seasonal shifts can influence our emotions. With colder, darker months arriving in the northern hemisphere after a hard year, is there any way to feel happier despite the winter weather? New research suggests that cultivating a positive mindset about winter can offset many of the negative feelings often associated with the drearier months. Surveys from cities in Norway (where you know the winter is rough) show that more positive mindsets are correlated with higher well-being, including more positive emotions, and higher life satisfaction. It seems that thinking about winter positively (e.g., “the snow is so beautiful”) instead of negatively (e.g., “it’s such a pain to shovel snow all the time”) changes and improves our overall mental state. Next time you feel yourself getting annoyed about how cold it is outside, think about all the things you enjoy about winter instead—like the opportunity for a fire, cozy blanket, and large mug of hot cocoa. [International Journal of Wellbeing]